"Salt of the Earth"

by Acey

Notes: Obviously not canon compliant (mostly in that chapter 82 never happened, which, of course, alters just about everything), with almost no explanation behind the change. Spoilers up to about volume 17 or so. Overreaching. Inaccuracies. Raphael/Kira, intimations of Raphael/Sara, Kira/Alexiel.

there's enough of a man still left here for you to hate. -messala, ben-hur

Their base- their last base- in Heaven is cold and unyielding. Every soldier and every rebel has a starched, formal stiffness that Kira's long since found unbearable. The faces blur and merge together, a sea of toy soldiers, toy rebels, play-actors for a dead audience. Old men reciting prayers, loading and reloading their guns. Veterans with tired eyes that snap to attention at the sight of him, expressions that freeze over. If they've spoken of him, it's been in hushed tones.

Setsuna would feign ignorance if he were still here. Katou's not half so kind when he's in the mood to talk, which isn't so often now. Katou's hands don't fidget the way they used to, in the classroom and even in Anagura; there's a forced control to his movements now that might have unnerved Kira once, as though even he realizes the game is up. During easier days, Kira tells himself that Katou suspects him. Days like today he's willing to admit that Katou knows.

Besides Katou, only one other man in the entire compound ever seems to stand out, ever looks as though his worn features weren't cast from quite the same mold as the others. Only he gets a reception half as frosty as Kira's.

Only he deserves it, part of Kira feels like saying, or else feels like he should be saying, that pretend part that was more of a sham than even he realized, the part that once wanted to be human, wanted to lash out and blame as a human would. Raphael's an easy scapegoat for this last misery, Kira figures, before that thought too is swallowed up in apathetic exhaustion. Raphael with his defiance and hatred, sharp and obvious though he's still just like them and hasn't raised his voice against Kira, not within earshot. Raphael with his delusions.

Raphael with the meal tray in his hands as he takes Sara her breakfast.

It's enough.

xxx

It seems like weeks before Kira seeks him out. He's lost track of time somewhere between Assiah and heaven and hell though he still feels Setsuna, still senses him somewhere in the highest pinnacle of Atziluth.

Raphael has his doctor's coat flung over one arm. Kira can see the old plastic ID tag still clipped to the front pocket, next to a ballpoint pen. There's Raphael's photo staring at him, and beneath that his name, rank, and finally his signature in cramped Enochian script. Kira can read it. He supposes now that he always could.

"Running late?"

Raphael's walking past him with barely a pause. Kira follows, reaches a hand out and his fingers catch on the front of that coat, casually slip to that card, pulling it out and holding it like a prize.

"You don't need this anymore."

"Give it back."

"If you're still wearing that, you must not be very committed." Kira tilts the card and Sevotharte's seal flashes briefly across it. "That's bad for morale."

"Give it to me."

"Can't be sentimental, you're not the type. Or can it? You might not miss Sevotharte, but you sure as hell miss having a woman in your bed."

Raphael doesn't say a word for a long moment. There's a sudden, swirling breeze, one that cuts through into something raw, and Kira feels the card slip out of his fingers, watches as it flies into Raphael's outstretched hand like a magician's best parlor trick.

"Go back to hell, Kira," he whispers, and Kira tries to smile.

xxx

He allows him his card. Even his privacy, for a fair few days more, but Kira's run low on conversationalists, and lower on allies. Katou's resembling nothing so much as an old man now, right down to that squinting gaze, the way he's gone from near-silence to rambling explosions of words. He'll talk about Sae incessantly, yank Kira's arm, his eyes glazed, my sister, you know, she's getting married- next month she's getting married, and I've got to get her something- and Kira nods in agreement before shrugging him away.

He's turned over the idea of telling Raphael, but he knows better.

The midafternoon sun gives the whole base an unnatural glaze. The sterile whites assume a yellow-orange shade that doesn't suit them. Raphael's lab coat takes on the color and it makes even him look a little Biblical, at least until the thin sheen of sweat on his forehead ruins the image. This time Raphael doesn't try to walk past him; this time he meets him with narrowed eyes and fingers clenched around his lit cigarette, silent and reluctant as ever to give the devil his due. Kira clears his throat.

"It's not pretty," Kira says, "what you've done for her."

Raphael stiffens.

"You mean to her."

"For her." He pulls a match from his coat pocket, striking it on his shoe. "Dismissing all the servants like that, even that maid- just so you could take care of her personally."

"Shut up."

"No, I'm honestly surprised you'd have the nerve after what you did."

"That's none of your concern."

"That's a fine thing to say." His own indifferent brutality is starting to surprise him, the toneless words spilling out like water. "It's not good enough to steal her away once, is it? Easier to touch her when she's like this, right? Good thing for you that Setsuna couldn't imagine what a swine-"

"Shut up!"

The wind's picked up, abruptly, and Kira's next comment catches in his throat. Raphael's hand is fisted in Kira's shirt- Raphael's yanking him, forcing him up- and the hatred in those blue eyes is so overt and so reminiscent that for a moment Kira almost feels, and he almost feels right again.

"I haven't touched her. You can say what you damn well please but I haven't touched her. You know why I took over? Do you know why?"

Kira can feel Raphael's grip slipping already, fingers meant to strip away silks struggling with the weight of flesh. He doesn't answer.

"Because she killed the maid who came to feed her. The maid and a half-dozen soldiers. I- was the first to see. The corpses were strewn all around her chair, and she was smiling. I nearly shot her myself. I would have if she hadn't said my name. And I knew it then. I knew I could never assign her to someone else again."

He lets go. Raphael's words are quieter with every sentence.

"I'll never be like that brother of hers. I don't have the nerve to face God. I didn't have the nerve to face a dictator. But I could face what's happened to her, I could stare and see it for what it was. I could- I could stand what that boy couldn't."

That single moment of emotion's gone already. Kira's tongue seems dust-dry, voice a mechanical crackle. There's no energy to the sounds, no fervency.

"Because it's your fault."

Raphael doesn't flinch.

"Yes."

xxx

It becomes a game. Kira invites himself into Raphael's quarters the rare times he's actually there. Into the kitchen where Raphael prepares Sara's meals, into the mundane little laundromat, and then they start to play again, decide how many barbs can be flung before one pierces through, smarts and stings what's left of conscience or feelings or soul. It's a game they're both poor at.

After that first time, Raphael keeps his temper almost invariably. In the most denied recesses of his mind Kira knows that it's not because his own jabs lack cruelty- he's simply heard them before, reverberating on a thousand tongues, slut and seducer until he believed them himself. There's rarely any challenge or protest. Raphael laughs sometimes, the sound soft, unexpectedly lilting, never more than when he's being taunted. As though he's been let in on the joke long ago.

Kira takes pains, then, finds new subjects. Petty subjects- you look bad, doctor, why don't you take off, get some rest- somehow they rouse him instead and the expression in his eyes changes, hardens. Sara is the sorest subject of all, of course, but Kira soon discards the option and in turn Raphael never mentions Michael. Kira suspects that's for Raphael's own comfort as much as his own: he knows a far better show of solidarity and loyalty would be dismissing Kira outright. Denying him the chance to say a word, letting him take a taste of what Michael had endured for hundreds of years, that same willful lack of recognition.

If it bothers Raphael's conscience, though, he doesn't show it, but then, Raphael's committed himself to martyrdom at the hands of a child. He's keeping time by meal trays and sleep schedules while Kira's lost track of the years and the hours both. Raphael is tethered and that gives him substance, forces breath into his lungs as fleeting as the breezes that follow him. Kira drowns in dreams and memories, a dull, deep-seated realization that he no longer cares to feel, that he'll lapse and become that inscrutable, absurd phantom again. Michael's twin, Alexiel's lover, Hell's brilliant ruler back to reclaim all. Raphael would be the only reality left, spooning oatmeal into a dead girl's mouth.

xxx

"When I was an aide, I hated it."

Kira shifts from his position on the marble counterop.

"Why?"

"Because it wasn't nearly good enough." It's five minutes until Sara's next meal and Raphael's lost himself in brooding. He's cutting up the meat on her plate into small, agonizing chunks as he speaks. "It was a coveted position, of course, but it was so difficult to progress past it. I- oh, I'd say otherwise, but I never quite thought I was worth promoting. Like there was something the matter with me, a deficiency of character, or that I cared too much about all the wrong things."

Time for the old, unkind refrain, I have a hard time imagining you caring about anything, but Kira's silent except for a nod.

"I was a child when the first of the Morning Angels received their positions. Can you believe that, Kira?"

A month ago, a week ago, he would have punctuated that, don't you remember that, Kira.

"So it made quite an idyllic impression. I'd see all the great angels on the television broadcasts- my nurse used to let me watch them, after dinner. When I was a cadet, they would speak occasionally at the academy. And as I got older, after I graduated, I'd see them when the hospital was inspected, or when a new edict was being passed." Raphael's words speed up, blur. "I'd wonder what they did for work, or if they really worked at all or just- basked in whatever quality made them so special. So sacred. Jibril was the only one I'd grown up with, and I'd never seen it in her."

Kira fidgets for his lighter and a fresh cigarette.

"You hated her."

"No." Raphael almost sounds surprised, as though he hadn't expected a retort at all. He wipes the blade off on a napkin before returning to core an apple next. "I envied her. I respected her. I thought being an Elemental meant something, right up until I was promoted." And then, just as easily his tone starts to cut. "But I'm sure that's nothing new to you."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't." The corner of his mouth twitches, the core's tossed in a wastebasket. "That's what's kept both of us alive. That's what kept me from slicing my stomach open after Belial was through with me. That's what kept you at the Messiah's side. A great ability to lie, Kira, that's the only real mercy left."

"It's not a mercy."

"Oh?" Raphael glances at him. The light reflects off the rims of his glasses; Raphael's severely nearsighted, and has been since the end of the first war. He's given up on his usual contacts ever since Sara was placed under his direct care. Too irritating, he'd claimed, and Kira hadn't said a word. "What is it, then?"

"It's an-" Excuse, Kira wants to say, somehow, but the word won't come. He tries a different tack. "It's not such a bad thing to want to live."

"No. It's a disgraceful thing, which is worse." Raphael straightens up, arranges and rearranges the silverware and dishes on her meal tray. Fingers and folds the napkin.

"I'll take the tray, Raphael."

"I'll take care of it."

"No. I don't mind."

"But I do." Raphael picks up the tray without another word, strides out the double doors. Kira watches from the door window. Watches Raphael lift that fork to her lips over and over. Hold that straw because she can't, or won't, grip it herself. The meal seems to take years and he's silent at first, bearing the brunt of it with a stoicism Kira finds at once pathetic and almost noble. Then he can see Raphael's mouth move, and before long he can hear him through the door.

He turns away before he can catch the words.

xxx

Raphael looks young that night. The lines on his face are not so harsh and his eyes are like hers, an unremarkable bright blue. His hands, broad hands, idle hands, claw at Kira's shirt in sudden desperation.

Kira tastes ashes on his lips. There's the faded scent of a girl's perfume cloying to his collar.

He could reject him even now, though Raphael's fingers are already toying with the zipper of his jeans. Ought to, really, and he's not sure if it's cruelty or pity or want staying his hand, or if it's only selfishness on both their parts. If they're nothing but bodies, starved for feeling, starved for affection, starved for life, grasping at each other in search of a little warmth before the end.

It doesn't matter. Raphael's nails bite into his skin, his shoulders; his mouth grazes his neck and he's whispering something Kira doesn't want to understand.

It's enough.

finis